Present obsessions

Coronavirus seems to dominate the news and now is beginning to dominate our tribal animosities, but don’t forget Michael Flynn.

1

Some fascinating insights by one of Rod Dreher’s readers:

[B]ecause conservatives aren’t interested in environmental policy, public health, etc., they cede those fields to progressives, which means those institutions develop progressive biases, which both repels potential conservative workers and makes it harder for them to advance, which increases progressive bias, and so on. And when conservatives DO get the chance to helm these organizations–and this is where Trump infuriates me more than almost anything else–instead of putting serious thinkers with a body of work and experience into those positions, they put in grifters or people who intentionally dislike the institution and want to weaken it. In some areas, this is an understandable if sad dynamic. But public health has been viewed as part of the magistrate’s job for as long as war and courts. Governments have been quarantining infectious disease since well before the United States existed. It is a CRUCIAL field, and it has to function, and conservatives cannot just bitch about how “well it’s full of liberals and has a liberal bias.” Yeah, public health will institutionally be biased a bit towards statist, central action. It will be skeptical of religious institutions as partners. But your county health department is as vital to your community as your local school district or police, and by ceding fields like public health to the progressives, conservatives have basically lost all institutional knowledge about things like public health. There is no viable conservative alternative to public health in this crisis–the entirety of it is “bunch of libs doing lib stuff! No to that!”

Masks As Condensed Symbols | The American Conservative (emphasis added).

I’ve been repeatedly encountering lately reminders of how we abstract fairly concrete things so we can analyze them, and a portion of what Rod’s reader said was one of those reminders.

This was one of the best things I read today inasmuch as it acknowledges institutional liberalism but indicts conservatives as co-conspirators — and reminds us to “get real.”

2

First Things is much in the news as Editor in Chief R.R. Reno becomes increasingly strident, populist and Trumpist in general, and had a downright nasty Tweetstorm this week about coronavirus “cowards.” His outburst accelerated comments on the magazine’s decline — a fairly long slide, arguably dating to the arrival of Reno.

My own contribution:

Performative: I threw my June/July First Things in the trash, unopened.

Substantive #1: I already skimmed, “clipped” and annotated it digitally.

Substantive #2: skimming, clipping and annotating is a relatively trivial job these (waning?) days of the Rusty Reno reign.


Jonathan V. Last of the Bulwark has come onto my radar recently.  He’s had several good insights.

Not one of the (conflicting) coronavirus conspiracy theories finds any basis for faulting the guy where the buck is supposed to stop. That’s the big tell that, taken literally, every one of the conspiracy-mongers is bullshitting. That’s my distillation of part of one essay.

But:

We have a “don’t wear masks” movement that overlaps almost entirely with the “reopen immediately” movement.

There are only two possible explanations for why this might be. The first is that people are dumber than a bag of hammers.

The second is that when people tell you what they think about “reopening” and “masks,” they aren’t actually talking about the coronavirus. They’re telling a story about how they see themselves and their place in the world.

… [T]here is a non-trivial number of Americans—maybe it’s 1-in–10, maybe it’s 1-in–4—who … view the pandemic as … opportunity to posture and perform.

In part, this is an artifact of how successful the mitigation measures have been: Because the death toll has been held to the scores of thousands, many people have the luxury of talking and acting however they like without facing real-world consequences …

As America’s decadence has increased over the last 30 or so years and we have become—just objectively speaking—a less serious country, one of the stories we have told ourselves was that we could become a serious people again if we faced a big enough shock or a stern enough test. That the steely, strong, serious America of the last century—the America that survived the Depression and crushed the Nazis and put men on the moon—was still somewhere within us, just waiting to be awakened. That our true, best selves just needed a call to action, a grave, existential summons.

The reaction of this vocal and sizable minority to the pandemic suggests that this story might not be true, either.

Jonathan V. Last, The Curious Case of the People Who Want to “Reopen” America—But Not Wear Masks. Well, that kinda got dark at the end, didn’t it?


Rod Dreher, too, laments First Things, but pivots:

It should also be said that from my point of view, the Christian Left is completely bankrupt. What is its point at all? It is so besotted with LGBT activism and identity politics that it is impossible to discern anything distinctly Christian about it. I mean, if it is true that far too much of the Religious Right has subordinated itself to offering theological justifications for right-wing politics, this is, if anything, more true of the Religious Left, with progressive causes. Name one thing that any significant Religious Left figure stands for that opposes secular left-wing politics …

But that’s their problem. We on the Christian Right have our own to work out. What I regret is that First Things still has a unique position of being able to offer that leadership, but is squandering it. It was a mistake for Reno to endorse Donald Trump publicly, and to thereby tie the magazine to the Trump project. I don’t object to the magazine running piece sympathetic to Trump, but it would have been far, far more prudent to have kept the magazine uncommitted. And now, in the Covid–19 crisis, the magazine has not been a place for thoughtful, challenging theological and cultural analyses of the pandemic phenomenon, but has become known for Reno’s descent into bizarro crankishness.

Rod Dreher, First Things & The Future Of Religious Conservatism | The American Conservative.


Alan Jacobs had a long history with them, but now asks what to say about First Things? at his Snakes and Ladders blog. After editor Jim Neuchterlein left, universal acceptance of Jacobs’ manuscripts became universal rejection:

It was, and still is, hard for me to know how much I had changed and how much they had.

Not, for a long time, being willing to give up altogether, I managed to get a handful of things in the magazine, but it was obvious that my relationship with it was never going to be the same. And then things started getting more generally strange. A kind of … I’m not quite sure what the word is, but I think I want to say a pugilistic culture began to dominate the magazine. When I submitted a piece to an editor, another editor wrote me an angry email demanding to know why I hadn’t submitted it to him; whenever I disagreed with Rusty Reno about something, he would, with such regularity that I felt it had to be intentional, accuse me of having said things I never said; once, when I made a comment on Twitter about the importance of Christians who share Nicene orthodoxy working together, another editor quickly informed me that I’m not a Nicene Christian. (Presumably because, since I’m not a Roman Catholic, I don’t really believe in “the holy Catholic church.”)

I suspect all these folks would tell a different story than the one I’m telling, so take all this as one person’s point of view, but more and more when I looked at First Things I found myself thinking: What the hell is going on here? Sometimes the whole magazine seemed to be about picking fights, and often enough what struck me as wholly unnecessary and counterproductive fights. (Exhibit A: the Mortara kerfuffle.) So I stopped submitting, and then I stopped subscribing, and then for the most part I stopped reading.

I fear Jacobs isn’t alone, but he concludes with a reminder that all is not lost:

Rod Dreher is correct to say, in a follow-up to the post I linked to at the top of this piece, that no other magazine of religion and public life, or religion and intellectual life, has the reach of First Things. But I think the decision by the editors of FT to occupy the rather … distinctive position in the intellectual landscape that they’ve dug into for the past few years has left room for a thousand flowers to bloom in the places that FT is no longer interested in cultivating. I have gotten more and more involved with Comment; they’re publishing some outstanding work at Plough Quarterly; even an endeavor like The Point, not specifically religious at all, makes room for religious voices ….

3

I think I’ve reached a conclusion that Judge Emmet Sullivan is acting properly seeking amici in the Department of Justice’s bizarre motion to dismiss charges against Michael Flynn. Randall D. Eliason convinced me:

[W]hat makes the Flynn case different, and so unusual, is that Flynn has already pleaded guilty. Once the court has gone through the solemn process of accepting a guilty plea, the balance of interests changes. Executive branch decisions about whether and how to prosecute are no longer implicated, because those decisions have already been made. The prosecution is largely over, the defendant stands convicted, and all that remains is sentencing — which is the prerogative of the judge. At that point, the court has a greater role to play in determining how the case proceeds.

The cases largely relied upon by Flynn and his supporters — including the most frequently cited, United States v. Fokker Services, B.V. — are cases involving prosecutorial decisions where there has been no guilty plea. That’s a crucial distinction. No one is pointing to cases in which the government has moved to completely drop a prosecution after a guilty plea because, frankly, no one can think of another example.

At the very least, because the government’s request is so unusual, it raises complex issues concerning how the court should proceed and what legal standards apply. With the Justice Department now in bed with Flynn, neither is going to present the other side of those issues to help Sullivan determine what to do next, and that makes it appropriate for a judge to invite outside experts to provide advice.

The judge in the Michael Flynn case has taken some unusual steps. Here’s why they’re appropriate.

4

“I found out with both Bush and Clinton, their childhood heroes were Willie Mays,” Shea said. “Bush told me that he didn’t want to be a president, he wanted to be Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays at 89: ‘My Thing Is Keep Talking and Keep Moving’ – The New York Times

That makes three of us.

5

Three new unnamed articles on race from the Immanent Frame. I’ve named them:

  1. How the social construct of race got constructed
  2. Race explored in poetry
  3. “Doing” religion and race together

I found the third easier to take if I imagined it as a spoof.

6

I’ve never quite understood what American Exceptionalism is. It seems to shape-shift so that you contest it at your own risk.

Is this it?

7

Having established the principle that each department must “pull its weight” financially, Liberty University abolishes all departments to focus on Division I major sports.

(#Satire #PleaseDoNotSueMeJerry)

8

Peggy Noonan seems a fitting bookend, as she comments the class warfare aspects of our coronavirus contentiousness: Scenes From the Class Struggle in Lockdown.

I think we’re going to open up the economy again, but in a vulnerable age group and without a compelling need to go out, I’ll merge back into life slowly. Meanwhile, others had darned well better behave themselves lest we do finally push hospitals beyond their limits.

* * * * *

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

The times, they are a changin’

1

The history of greed, venality, stupidity, cruelty and violence is long because that part of human nature is ineradicable. As the 20th century demonstrated, it is better to bet on a liberal society’s capacity to temper these flaws and iniquities than on a utopia’s false promise to eradicate them. Those promises end being written in blood.

… [C]ycles of history run their course. By 2008 it was clear that the world economic system was seriously skewed. Bailed out, it staggered on until now, accompanied by growing anger in Western societies.

… All the grotesque needed, to be revealed as such, was for time to stop.

Roger Cohen, No Return to the ‘Old Dispensation’. The grotesque did stop, but has it been recognized sufficiently for us to actually change entrenched behavior when some kind of normalcy is again permitted?

I loved this whole column, by the way. So sorry if you can’t get to it — I don’t know how much, if anything, a non-subscriber can see.

2

Are we inherently gullible? Research says no: Most adults have well-functioning machinery for detecting baloney, but there’s a common bug in the machine. Faced with a novel idea or new circumstances, we gravitate to information that fits our already existing beliefs. As Sherlock Holmes put the problem: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” This bug has always been exploited by people seeking money, power — or both. But with the rise of social media, the world’s propagandists, con artists and grifters find their search for suckers easier than ever.

Witness the grubby exercise known as “#Plandemic.” [A conspiracy theory video now banned from social media — after infecting 8 million brains.] …

People believe in a “#Plandemic” because it fits into existing convictions. A lot of people already believe — not without reason — that pharmaceutical companies cash in on suffering. Many people have heard that government labs do research on biological weapons. All true. Government has hemorrhaged credibility in recent years — even with regard to veteran public servants such as Fauci. All of these mind-sets are potential vectors for the viral #plandemic.

Americans need to understand that they are being actively targeted for disinformation campaigns by people and forces pursuing their own agendas. Conspiracy-monger Alex Jones wants to sell them overpriced nutritional supplements. Anti-vaxxers are hawking books and miracle cures. Vladimir Putin and the mandarins of Beijing are pushing the decline of the United States and the death of the Western alliance.

Some want your money. Some want your mind. Citizenship in the Internet era demands a heightened commitment to mental hygiene and skepticism. We have to learn that the information that fits neatly into our preconceptions is precisely the information we must be wary of. And even in these wild times, we must heed the late Carl Sagan, who preached that“extraordinary claims” — like grand conspiracies and healing microbes — “require extraordinary proof.”

David Von Drehle, Why people believe in a ‘plandemic’.

Take a look at the next-to-last paragraph. Someone’s missing: Steve Bannon, who pledged to “flood the zone with shit” to neutralize truth-telling about Trump.

3

Fourteen years ago, Rod Dreher introduced us to Crunchy Cons. Now his friend Tara Isablla Burton, with a degree in theology but a fairly short history of personally “faithing,” thinks Christianity Gets Weird, and wants New York Times readers to know about it.

Because of her audience, or perhaps via her editors, I find a lot of her wording and characterizations weirdly “off” and off-putting. I’m familiar with the sort of phenomenon she’s talking about, and I’d have to say that although she’s in the right ballpark, she’s not just “way out in left field” but somewhere in the bleacher seats much of the time. For instance.

  1. I would not affirm either half of “old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping” anything. “Escaping” is an unduly negative spin on something fundamentally sane.
  2. Her characterization of “mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism” was painted with a mighty broad brush.
  3. What is “weekly membership” (emphasis added) in reference to Roman Catholic churches with Latin Mass?

But the teaser is great:

Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.

And near the conclusion, she gives a characterization I can endorse:

Like the hipster obsession with ‘authenticity’ that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.

That “something real” is, in the best cases (and I suspect they are many), God.

Flaws aside, I welcome anyone using a prominent platform like the New York Times Magazine to shout out that “the fusion of ethnonationalism, unfettered capitalism and Republican Party politics that has come to define the modern white evangelical movement” is not the whole of American Christianity. Not even close.

UPDATE:

Rod Dreher on Sunday published the full text of Tara Isabella Burton’s interview of him. She got in a couple of well-formed, open-ended questions, and he really ran with thim. For my money, that interview is better than TIB’s NYT story, but TIB was casting the net wider than Catholic and Orthodox converts.

This, for me, was Rod’s best point in the interview:

The phrase “Christian values” has been worn as smooth as an old penny by overuse, especially in the mouths of political preachers. Look, I’m a theological, cultural, and political conservative, but I admit that it has become hard, almost impossible, to find the language to talk meaningfully about what it means to believe and act as a Christian. This is not a Trump-era thing; Walker Percy was lamenting the same thing forty years ago, at least. I think the term “Christian values” has become meaningless. It is taken as shorthand for opposing the Sexual Revolution, and all it entails — abortion, sexual permissiveness, gay marriage, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that to be a faithful Christian does require one to oppose the Sexual Revolution, primarily because the Sexual Revolution offers a radically anti-Christian anthropology. But then, so does modernity — and this is an anti-Christian anthropology that clashes with the historic faith in all kinds of ways. I’m thinking of the way we relate to technology and to the economy.

You want to clear a room of Christians, both liberal and conservative? Tell them that giving smartphones with Internet access to their kids is one of the worst things you can do from the standpoint of living by Christian values. Oh, nobody wants to hear that! But it’s true — and it’s not true because this or that verse in the Bible says so. It’s true because of the narrative that comes embedded in that particular technology. It’s not an easy thing to explain, which is why so many Christians, both of the left and the right, think that “Christian values” means whatever their preferred political party’s preferred program is.

[Philip Rieff wrote that] “Barbarism is not some primitive technology and naive cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past.” This is perfectly true. This is why the dominant form of religion today is, to use sociologist Christian Smith’s phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s crap. It’s what people believe when they want the psychological comfort of believing in God, but without having to sacrifice anything. It’s the final step before total apostasy. In another generation, America is going to be like Europe in this way.

But something might change. The problem with the phrase “Christian values” is that it reinforces the belief that Christianity is nothing more than a moral code. If that’s all Christianity is, then to hell with it. The great thing about ancient, weird, traditional Christianity is that it is a lifeline to the premodern world. It reminds us of what really exists behind this veil of modern selfishness and banality and evil.

Weird Christianity: The Rod Dreher Interview.

That’s about as deep as I’ve ever read Rod going. Good stuff.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Timeless, ever-timely

I got inspired by a teaser for a Washington Post guest column April 11:

Their churches will be closed on Easter. Here’s what they would have said.

Featured were nine “faith leaders”:

You can judge their uneven offerings for yourself.

As we are never earlier in our Orthodox Christian Paschal celebration, and generally one to five weeks later than western Christendom, and are largely invisible in North America, no Orthodox clergy were included. But that’s okay.

It’s okay because I can tell you exactly “what they would have said” (give or take countless languages) every single one of them, this April 19, 2020, and many of them right around now, 1:30 in the morning (give or take 24 time zones).

It would have made no special mention of the current pandemic, and yet …

Well, here’s what they’d have said:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, delivered in the fourth or very early fifth century, which I submit has never been surpassed. It’s our tradition throughout Orthodoxy to read it verbatim, each Pascha. Because it’s timeless, it’s ever-timely.

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Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Un-learning

I recall from my late high school days a presentation by Moody Bible Institute about its school for missionary aviators in Tennessee. It has stuck with me for something like 55 years now that applicants who already had pilots licenses were not ahead of the game: “We have to un-teach them everything they’ve learned.”

Moody was quintessentially Evangelical, so it’s a bit ironic that Evangelicals must now unlearn what they’ve been taught in order to become better, more historically-rooted Christians.

Take conversion, for instance (a topic I began last night, not knowing I’d be continuing).

“Saints are made by good conversions.” In this challenging and provocative book, Gordon T. Smith contends that a chief cause of spiritual immaturity in the evangelical church is an inadequate theology of conversion. Conversion, he says, involves more than a release from the consequences of sin–the goal is spiritual transformation. But there is little transformation without a complete and authentic conversion. The key is beginning well. In this age of false starts and stunted growth, maturing Christians need help reflecting on and interpreting their own religious experience. Christian leaders need to rethink the way that conversions happen. Beginning Well is a catalyst toward this end. Surveying Scripture, spiritual autobiographies and a broad range of theologies of conversion (Protestant and Catholic, Reformed and Wesleyan), the author seeks to foster in the Christian community a dynamic language of conversion that leads to spiritual transformation and mature Christian living. In the process he moves us from a short-sighted “minimalist” view to one that recognizes seven elements necessary for good conversions. This book–a stirring call to rethink the relationship between conversion and transformation–is a must read for pastors, evangelists, spiritual directors, seminary professors and others who are concerned about the nurture and development of Christian converts, and the nature of authentic religious experience.

Book notes for Gordon T. Smith’s Beginning Well: Christian Conversion & Authentic Transformation.

Evangelicals are known for their emphasis on conversion. But what about life after conversion and beyond justification?
Desperately needed is a comprehensive theology of the Christian life from beginning to end, along with the means of formation and transformation. In Called to Be Saints, Gordon Smith draws on a distinguished lifetime of reflecting on these themes to offer us a theologically rich account of our participation in the life of Christ.
Both profound and practical, this book is a trinitarian theology of holiness that encompasses both justification and sanctification, both union with Christ and communion with God. Smith unfolds how and why Christians are called to become wise people, do good work, love others and enjoy rightly ordered affections.
If holiness is the ongoing journey of becoming mature in Christ, then there is no better guide than Smith. Christians in every walk of life will find this a rich resource for learning what it means to “grow up in every way . . . into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

Book notes for Gordon T. Smith’s Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, which was Evangelical enough to win a book award from Christianity Today.

This volume offers much-needed theological reflection on the phenomenon of conversion and transformation. Gordon Smith provides a robust evaluation that covers the broad range of thinking about conversion across Christian traditions and addresses global contexts. Smith contends that both in the church and in discussions about contemporary mission, the language of conversion inherited from revivalism is inadequate in helping to navigate the questions that shape how we do church, how we approach faith formation, how evangelism is integrated into congregational life, and how we witness to the faith in non-Christian environments. We must rethink the nature of the church in light of how people actually come to faith in Christ. After drawing on ancient and pre-revivalist wisdom on conversion, Smith delineates the contours of conversion and Christian initiation for today’s church. He concludes by discussing the art of spiritual autobiography and what it means to be a congregation.

Book notes for Gordon T. Smith’s Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation.

Next, they really need to unlearn the heresy of chiliasm/millenialism in all its forms, not just the novel and particularly virulent dispensational premillennialism.

* * * * *

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.
Continue reading “Un-learning”

Shattering a Shibboleth

I have increasingly come to respect the Evangelical Regent College (Eeeewwwww! I almost linked to Pat Robertson’s Regent “University”!) as a place of genuine learning (or that at least aspires to it). [Author’s note: there remains something called “Evangelicalism” that is a novel Christian sect rather than The Republican Party at Prayer. I was raised and educated in it.]

One of my favorite Protestants, Hans Boersma, was at Regent for a while until he left for the Anglican Nashota House. I stumbled across its podcast somehow a few months ago. Despite the giggliness of the hosts, many of the podcasts are quite good. But one that I just finished listening to made me exclaim “Glory to Jesus Christ!”

How do we understand a Christian conversion? Is it a static moment or is it a journey? Does our personal conversion experience match the experiences of our favourite Bible characters? In this episode, Gordon T. Smith, who by the way wrote 2 books and did a doctoral dissertation on this topic, challenges our concepts of conversion and tells us where all of our evangelical confusion around conversion started. You cannot miss this episode.

The notion of a “punctiliar” conversion (a new coinage, so far as I know, and not mine) — praying the Sinner’s Prayer, asking Jesus into your heart, etc. — was seemingly a sina qua non of evangelicalism as I grew up. If you couldn’t give the date when you so “got saved” you were highly suspect. The idea of just growing into the Christian faith was scorned.

But on this podcast, Gordon Smith challenges that head-on, tells its sorry history (which like most Evangelical errors is rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries — rarely even the late 18th century) and for my money demolishes it.

Smith’s understanding is not yet Orthodox, but freeing his mind, and those of his Regent College students, from a major Evangelical shibboleth* is huge.

May his tribe increase!

* I am aware that etymologically, a shibboleth is not something to be freed from or shattered, but I think it has evolved in usage to where both are apt.

* * * * *

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Illusions of clarity and autonomy

The Washington Post has an Op-Ed exhorting Want to help save hospitals from being overwhelmed? Fill out that medical directive now. I expected to hate it more than I did.

So why did I hate it at all?

1. The clear message is that the some of us really should be willing to die for the rest of us.

There is little or no guilt-tripping manipulation in the column beyond that tacit message, but it goes out into a culture amply primed to understand. ‘Nuff said.

2. You’re not as clear as you think.

“[I]t is vital for physicians to know, and to honor, every patient’s explicit wishes,” the authors say, but “explicit wishes” carries a crushing burden there.

I practiced law for almost 40 years, with a lot of estate planning included. I was avocationaly involved in promotion of appropriate medical treatment for all, such as a symposium on physician-assisted suicide at Stanford in 1988, beginning before “Living Wills” became a fad. (Ever since then, by the way, I’ve been convinced that, for better or worse, we are going to get a single-payer system of some sort. I’m surprised it has taken so long.) And apart from the parents of a childhood friend, I don’t think I ever heard or was able to tease out of a client any “explicit” wishes.

My friend’s parents, though not very old, were tired of living and wanted no medical measures to sustain life.

Me: You mean that if you collapsed on the floor in front of me right now, you wouldn’t want me to call 911?

Them: Yes.

Now that was clear. I helped them doument their wish as strongly as possible, and somewhat to my surprise, they both were dead within five years.

Most of what I got from clients was vague but heartfelt pleas amounting to “I don’t want to die, but don’t let me end up like Karen Quinlan!” Understandable from the standpoint of empathy (nobody wants to “end up like Karen Quinlan”), but not as a concrete decision.

And then I had to try to fit the best I could tease out of them into something “substantially” in a legislatively-prescribed format that by itself was just more of the same vagueness. Efforts at adding clarity or nuance threatened to make it not in substantially the required form.

I couldn’t know because there was no caselaw. And there was no caselaw because …

3. Some doctor you’ve never met before will drive a Mack Truck through your ambiguities.

I can imagine clear advance directives by people who have candidly spoken with their physician about the expected course of a specific terminal condition that has been diagnosed. That’s what P.O.S.T. laws are about.

But because advance directives other that P.O.S.T. orders are (almost – see above) always vague, physicians pretty much do what they think is reasonable.

Maybe you’re okay with your long-time physician doing that, but if you’re in the hospital, it’s likely to be a physician you never met before.

4. Once you’re incapacitated, you’re no longer autonomous.

Early in court disputes over medical decisionmaking for incapacitated people (see Karen Quinlan or Indiana’s Sue Ann Lawrence), judges were groping around for a rationale to keep the courts from being flooded with such cases. They frequently lit upon the notion of “autonomy,” a rationale so transparently bogus as to drive a philosopher mad, and I was too philosophical to suffer such foolishness gladly.

The rationale was absurd and perverse because the cases invariably involved incapacitated people.

If not incapacitated, patients make their own decisions, and are bound (in theory) by no limitations on their deciding. Want to make a bizarre and lethal decision to forego an antibiotic for an easily-treated staph infection? No problem. Injecting you would be malpractice and criminal battery if you refuse it.

But how about if you’re incapacitated? May a judge reason that your life — maybe lifelong disability, or mild to moderate dementia — is so wretched that a reasonable person in that position would prefer to die needlessly of staph rather than to continue living?

My answer was and is “no.” But (admittedly in more dire circumstances) many judges were saying “yes” and justifying it as “autonomy.”

I once challenged a court of appeals judge, sitting on a panel of presenters at a continuing legal education seminar, that “autonomy-by-proxy” was an oxymoron, implying that they needed a better rationale. So obviously true was my observation that her only “out” was to deny that that was what they were doing. (So of course she ended up life-tenured on a Federal court.)

But that is what they were doing. The autonomy belonged to the patient and was only autonomous when exercised by the patient. The judges were exercising counterfeit “autonomy” in the name of the patient.

5. Be a burden to your family.

You can’t get around that by appointing a friend or family member either. Insofar as you’ve lost capacity, you’ve lost control. Nobody, appointed by you or elected by fellow-citizens, can be autonomous for you. Get over it.

So what do I recommend? Proxies, like a Power of Attorney for Healthcare and/or an Appointment of Representative for Healthcare. (The titles and details tend to be state-specific.)

In other words, giving someone you trust (and ideal who loves you) the power to make decisions for you if you’re incapacitated isn’t properly autonomous, but it’s the best of a bad lot of choices — by a wide margin, too, in my opinion.

And then talk to them about your values and vague wishes before you are incapacitated.

I only had one client reject that offer, on the basis that he didn’t want to burden his family — and it turned out that he was secretly such a monster — driven by ideology, I think — that most in his family would have grieved little were he dead.

Don’t be like him.

* * * * *

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

A lot to contemplate

The Greeks – Aristotle no less than Plato – as well as the great medieval thinkers, held that not only the physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation, or as Heraclitus says, “listening to the essence of things“.

The Middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intellectus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both of these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together.

There is no need to waste words showing that not everything is useless which cannot be brought under the definition of the useful …

In the Middle Ages, [this] view prevailed. “It is necessary for the perfection of human society“, Aquinas writes, “that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation“ – nota bene, necessary not only for the good of the individual who so devotes himself, but for the good of human society. No one thinking in terms of “intellectual worker“ could have said that.

[L]eisure does not exist for the sake of work – however much strength it may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical, and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically, and spiritually to, that is not the point.

The point and the justification of leisure or not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man – and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realizing his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.

Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pages 28, 40-41, 49-50.

Use your “social distancing” time to get the house spic’n’span, to watch some worthy movies, to read some worthy books. But it’s Lent: fast a little, pray more, give time and/or money to those in greater need — and don’t forget to take some time for sheer contemplation. There’s a lot to contemplate.

* * * * *

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Trade-offs of pluralism

I’m still bereft of worthy, fresh ideas for blogging since blogging for me is part of an iterative search for truth and I don’t have a good enough handle on coronavirus to say a whole lot confidently and truthily.

Except maybe this: If you think the coronavirus is a hoax and not very serious, pull your head out of those nether-regions where the sun don’t shine (i.e., shut off Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk), get a few basic facts, and think about how many Chinese, Italian and Spanish people died, how many international organizations sounded alarms, in this elaborate hoax to dethrone King Donald. Does that sound plausible?

Lacking something fresh, I found another incomplete draft, from September 9, took it and dusted it off. Enjoy!

* * *

Sohrab Ahmari and David French finally faced off live at Catholic University of America Thursday evening [September 5?], moderated by Ross Douthat.

In debating terms, it was no contest: French cleaned up. In fairness to Ahmari, his wife had a child on Wednesday, so he had things on his mind more important than a mere livestreamed national debate of sorts.

But again and again, French, in good Evangelical style, spoke of the freedom to preach the Gospel in a content-neutral public square, to lead drag queens to Jesus, and such. That’s pretty consistent with the forward-facing values of ADF, the Evangelical-leaning public-interest law firm for or with whom he formerly worked.

It started to sound as obsessive as Ahmari’s concern over Drag Queen Story Hour. So I was glad to see Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy argue for something a bit thicker than mere neutrality:

For most of the … campus ministries at Nebraska, …universities were convenient social institutions because they rounded up a large number of demographically similar young people into a single place where they would have broadly identical routines, all of which made it very easy to evangelize them. Many of these groups did not think anything of taking their students away from campus regularly on retreats, heavily programming their weeks (thereby cutting into their time to give to their studies), and even sometimes suggesting that their academic work was of mostly incidental importance. The real life happened in Bible studies and when you prayed and over coffee with your discipler or disciplee. College, much like one’s eventual career, was mostly a necessary evil that simply secured material goods for you.

While watching the French-Ahmari debate last night it occurred to me that French seems to have a fairly similar vision of the nation—it’s an incidental good that is useful for advancing certain strictly material goods but it pales in significance when set next to the work of the church …

The point is not necessarily that French should endorse some species of integralism, although it is worth noting that in his handling of rights and the nature of religious doctrine as it relates to public life French is far closer to the Baptists than he is the traditional views of the reformed tradition to which he belongs. But that point aside, French could preserve many of the rights he cares about preserving while anchoring his account of the political in something more real than the pragmatic adjudication of disputes within a pluralistic society.

… That the government could be something more than a mere arbiter who threatens to hit you in the head with a brick if you don’t play nicely with your neighbor seems to be unimaginable ….

There’s much more Jake wrote, but you can go read it yourself readily enough.

By lifelong mental habit and eventual initiation into the solemn mysteries of “thinking like a lawyer,” I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to leave the camp of classical procedural liberalism, but the Ahmaris and Meadors of the world at least drive home that there are trade-offs in our pluralistic experiment.

One of the trade-offs is the risky one of declaring, a priori, that we must never agree on just what is the “common good” because we know that there’s no such thing as human nature, just humans with various and sundry natures, each, probably, as unique as a snowflake. I disagree with both dogmas, but for the foreseeable future, I’m a loser. It will take some undeniable anthropological catastrophe, the equivalent of COVID-19, to turn those tables.

* * * * *

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

* * * * *

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Cliché

If I weren’t so compulsive, I’d probably say of my reading this late-morning, “That’s enough! Time to stop and chew on this for a couple of hours.”

Educated cynics suspect that all uses of … stock phrases are empty of thought; like a college professor whom I admired, they feel a burden to respond to every “How are you?” with a seven-seconds’ pause and measured reply. But imagine the strain, the impossibility, of trying to invent a unique response to every “How are you?”, a unique phrase for each circumstance needing “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or “You have my sympathy”, a unique creed for every Christian. In this latter case particularly, pursuing freshness of expression would be _wrong. _A creed is not meant to express individual or innovative understanding and belief, but to give voice to communal, traditional understanding and belief. It is not expression but identification, not communication but communion.

That pedantic college professor is me, which is why I should chew on the rest of this very thoughtful and humane author’s insights.

And so the educated person must reassess, or risk the irony of his scorn of clichés becoming yet one more: the cliché of overeducated cynicism. Without denying Orwell’s point, could there still be an acceptable place for the cliché? Not in things meant to present and provoke fresh thought, but in circumstances that call for identification and communion? In circumstances when the rhythm of exchange, and not the reasoning of language, bears more weight?

* * * * *

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

I appreciate Donald Trump’s judicial appointments and a few other things he has done, but I’m utterly opposed to allowing that hateful, unstable and completely self-serving man to serve as President. Maybe by saying it here, I’ll feel less compelled to fault his multiple daily outrages — mere corroboration of his dark soul and tormented mind — in the body of the blog.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Liturgy, mimesis, humus

I went to a symposium over the weekend, the intimidating theme of which was For I Am Holy: The Command to Be Like God.

Like God?!

But this was my fifth year. I have people who are becoming like family to me. I wanted to see them.

Boy, am I glad I went.

There were no formulae. Holiness formulae can only turn us into delusional, self-righteous Church Lady prigs.

So the emphasis was how the liturgy and encountering great literature (sometimes with holy protagonists) and practicing humility at the most “humus” level can shape us toward holiness.

The Eighth Day Symposia are always ecumenical in the sense that the three main speakers are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. The commonality comes from moderate to deep knowledge of the Church Fathers.

Christians are divided. This is a fact. We have been since the schism between East and West at the turn of the first millennium and since the Protestant Reformations in the sixteenth century. This is a tragedy. That’s why we believe we have a duty to facilitate a dialogue of love and truth, one that acknowledges our real differences, but one that also seeks to achieve a common mind so we can stand reunited in the One who is the Truth.

There is a separate Florovsky-Newman week to focus on our differences. I’ve never been to one, but I think that’s going to change.

Eighth Day Institute is mutually and enthusiastically supportive of Eighth Day Books, a Christian bibliophile’s “happiest place on earth.”

EDB has just published a paper catalog for the first time in eight years. Get one before they’re gone!

* * * * *

All Christian readers could benefit from listening to the podcast The Struggle Against the Normal Life. It’s a short (11:05) detox for our toxic faux Christian environment.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.